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Sunshine Skyway suicide prevention barrier construction delayed by pandemic

The Florida Department of Transportation now hopes to start construction next month, pushing the completion date into the spring.

Editor’s note: This story includes descriptions of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or or call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay by dialing 2-1-1.

If all had gone according to plan, the long-awaited barrier to prevent suicides on the Sunshine Skyway would be nearly finished by now. But it’s mid-October, and the project that state officials expected be complete around Thanksgiving hasn’t started yet.

The coronavirus pandemic bears some blame, delaying delivery of stainless steel materials required for the project, said sate department of transportation spokeswoman Kris Carson.

“Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, acquisition times have increased,” Carson said in an email.

Now officials expect the contractor, Tarpon Springs-based Southern Road and Bridge, to begin construction next month. The four-month construction timetable would put the completion date sometime in early spring.

The Tampa Bay Times first reported in January that the transportation department would erect steel netting along a roughly mile and a half stretch of the Skyway. The netting will extend vertically 8 feet from the top of the bridge’s concrete barriers, making it difficult for would-be jumpers to climb over them and fall some 200 feet into the waters of Tampa Bay.

The transportation department awarded the contract to Southern Road and Bridge in March, giving the company 120 days to complete the project, not including days lost for inclement weather. The estimated completion date at the time was Nov. 27.

About the same time the contract was awarded, the coronavirus pandemic began disrupting global production and supply chains. Carson said the department worked with the contractor to find alternate sources for the materials, but the lead times for delivery were still longer than expected.

The barrier will be composed of several parts that are manufactured overseas. The square steel posts are made in India. The wire netting and other post components are made in China, and the base and mounting plate is manufactured in Sweden. The components will be welded into final configuration by a local fabrication shop, Carson said.

Many of the components are shipping through ports in China and India. Some are on the way but as of this week none had arrived.

The goal of the project is to remove the Skyway from the ranks of the top four deadliest bridges in America, officials have said. Proponents of a barrier have for years called for some sort of deterrent on the bridge to prevent people from jumping 200 feet to their deaths.

Despite measures such as increased law enforcement patrols and more surveillance cameras, the number of suicides has ticked upward in recent years. In 2018, a record 18 people died after jumping from the bridge, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The Highway Patrol recorded 12 suicides from the bridge last year and 15 attempts.

Though the pandemic has brought a surge of depression and anxiety to Tampa Bay, 2020 is on pace to see fewer Skyway suicides. A review of Highway Patrol records shows six suicides and seven attempts since Jan. 1, said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesman for the agency.

Rob Rivard of Tampa was among those wondering what was going on with the project.

After his stepson Chris jumped from the bridge in 2018, Rivard became one of the most active proponents of the barrier, lobbying a number of elected officials for a barrier including Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott. Rivard recently contacted DeSantis' office to get an update and learned about the construction delay from a Times reporter on Friday.

He said he’s glad to hear the department is still moving forward with the barrier.

“My concern was that they would reroute the money,” Rivard said. “As long as they get it done, that’s what’s important to me.”